KOREA COLUMN 38
Is Democratic Centralism Anti -democratic?
Democratic centralism is a principle of party of organisation which combines democratic debate and policy making with united action by all party members to implement the policy.
Since the days of Lenin and the Bolsheviks most Marxist parties have operated, or claimed to operate, on the basis of democratic centralism.
I say ‘claimed’ because in numerical terms the big majority of so-called Marxist parties have, in fact, been Stalinist parties loyal to the Soviet Union and in such parties the centralism was overwhelming, with every party and every individual expected to toe the line decided in Moscow, while the democracy was virtually non- existent. Not surprisingly this experience has given democratic centralism a bad name.
Now, it is clear that if we reject Marxist concepts or practices on the grounds that they were used, perverted or discredited by Stalinism then we have to reject Marxism and socialism in their entirety, but it also clear that hostility to democratic centralism is not confined to its Stalinist incarnations. There are many on the left – left reformists, libertarians, autonomists, anarchists etc. - who criticise Trotskyist and other strongly anti-Stalinist parties over this issue.
For example, in Britain, the Respect MP George Galloway, attacked the Socialist Workers Party for its democratic centralism, saying its members were like ‘Russian dolls’. (If this ‘Russian doll’ metaphor is circulating on the left in South Korea it is doubtless because it was picked up from Galloway). However, leaving George Galloway aside, there is clearly a widespread view on the left, that democratic centralism is a deeply flawed, inherently anti-democratic organisational model.
Despite this I intend to argue a) that democratic centralism is ESSENTIAL for a revolutionary workers party to perform effectively as a leader of the working class in struggle; b) that far from being anti-democratic it is really the MOST democratic form of party organisation.
To grasp the importance of democratic centralism it is necessary to understand that the attempt to combine democracy and centralism is not some arbitrary organisational principle dreamt up by Lenin or any other Marxist, but is rooted, in embryonic form, in the very nature of working class struggle. The working class struggle is a struggle from below, a struggle of ‘the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority’ From its earliest days (for example, the Chartists in Britain) one of its most important demands was for political democracy, the democratic republic. When workers realised that political democracy was not enough to change society they demanded not less but more democracy, democracy extended to production and society as a whole, hence social democracy. It was therefore natural and inevitable that workers’ organisations, trade unions, associations, parties and the like adopted – at least at first – democratic constitutions and procedures.
But there is also an element of centralism inherent in workers struggle. The power of capital is by its nature highly centralised Decision making in any capitalist enterprise is top down, from the owner or the Board of Directors, and enforced with virtually military discipline. As capitalism ages and the ownership of capital becomes more concentrated, so this centralisation becomes ever more extensive and intense. If Samsung, Ford or Exxon, make a strategic decision on pricing, plant closure or dealing with an industrial dispute, they will expect that decision to be implemented by every manager in the company across the world. To assert their rights against this power, workers have no choice but to combine their forces, to agree to act together.
Consider the most basic form of the class struggle, the strike. The workers of a particular workplace, company or industry decide, democratically (ideally through voting at mass meetings) whether or not to go on strike, but that decision is then binding on everyone. If the decision is against striking and some individuals still walk out, they will almost certainly simply be sacked. But if the decision goes in favour of the strike then every worker involved is expected to come out and anyone who does not is a scab and a traitor. This is democratic centralism in embryo. And to those who rail against democratic centralism it is worth pointing out that bourgeois liberals have always denounced trade union solidarity and discipline as an infringement of the sacred rights of the individual, but have never even noticed how the centralised power of capital affects the rights of working people.
The democratic centralism of the revolutionary party is based on the democratic centralism of the astrike, but there is also a difference. In the strike it applies, and is limited, mainly to the economic struggle. In the party it applies also to the political and , to an extent, to the ideological level. This is because the revolutionary party is a voluntary, minority organisation, within the workers’ movement as a whole, whose aim is to lead the working class in the conquest of political i.e. state power and which, in order to achieve that aim must, wage a many sided ideological struggle against the dominance of bourgeois ideas in the working class and against rival political tendencies (reformism, Stalinism etc) who experience has shown, will hold back the workers’ struggle and betray it to the bourgeoisie.
The necessity of this political democratic centralism can be seen if one replaces the example of the strike with the example of a revolutionary situation i.e a situation where the masses are in action, where the old state machine has been undermined, where, perhaps, there are elements of dual power – workers’ councils, occupied workp[laces etc. – and the fateful decision has to be made, for or against insurrection. How can such a decision be taken in the middle of the most intense class warfare?. Some kind of national referendum is not possible, nor can there be a series of parliamentary style public debates, not without alerting the class enemy and inviting counter-revolutionary repression. In fact only a party with roots in every section of the working class and a strong tradition of internal democratic debate will be able to assess correctly the mood of the masses and the chances of success. But once the decision has been made it must obviously be carried out in unity (in Seoul, Gyeongju and Busan, or London, Manchester and Birmingham) if the revolution is not to be crushed.
Be that as it may, the critics will say, we are not in a revolutionary situation, and the trouble with democratic centralism is that it too easily manipulated by bad leaders in the hear and now. In fact anti - democratic manipulation is always possible, whatever the formal constitution of a party, but democratic centralism makes it more difficult not easier. This is because it disciplines not only the rank and file of the party but also the leaders.
Imagine a party with, apparently, a high level of democratic debate and discussion but very little centralism. Such a party was the old British Labour Party before Tony Blair got his hands on it. Its annual conferences were full of passionate debates, criticisms of the party leadership, and resolutions democratically proposed and voted upon. Yet it all counted for nothing . Because there was no centralism the party leadership, especially when it was in government, simply ignored the decisions of the party. Without centralism there was no democracy because the working class majority of the party had no means ensuring its views were acted upon.
At bottom the question of democratic centralism is a class question. The working class needs both democracy and centralism because it is a movement from below which can succeed only by acting together.
27 July 2008